New East Digital Archive

The story behind the world’s loneliest video game and the birth of ‘post-Soviet sad 3D’

14 July 2020

Last year, Russian video game It’s Winter became an unlikely internet sensation. It lacked dramatic plot, customisable characters or thrilling battles: instead, it trapped the player in a nondescript Russian suburb. It’s Winter evoked curiosity due to its detailed and poetic setting, but also tapped into something much deeper – our angst, loneliness, ennui and yearning for connection. All of the above are integral for the work of the game’s creator, poet, musician and artist, Ilia Mazo.

It’s Winter is a little like being placed inside a mournful song. You look out the window of your virtual apartment and see the courtyard covered in snow, illuminated by street lamps, and the cold neon glare of store fronts. You turn on the light switch and look around your flat before heading out on a walk around the deserted courtyard. The corner shop and beauty salon are both closed, and the playground is eerily empty.

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A self-proclaimed work of “post-Soviet sad 3D”, It’s Winter offers little action but a wealth of emotions: familiarity, boredom, comfort, curiosity and, most of all, melancholy. Melancholy may be a universal feeling, but It’s Winter belongs to the new wave of Russian art which explores a specific, regional variation. This melancholy belongs to a post-Soviet generation with faint memories of failed utopian past, and an uncertain future over which they have little control. It in itself follows the long tradition of Russian sadness expressed through poetry and music: a melancholy which is hard to grasp but impossible to shake off. It is something Mazo has mastered perfectly.

Ilia Mazo is a poet, musician and artist based in Moscow. It’s Winter, created in collaboration with developer Alexander Ignatov, is only a tiny fraction of his universe which includes three musical albums, a play, a book of poetry, videos, and animation. It’s Winter came out of a crushing period of physical illness, failure and uncertainty – perhaps the reason why it feels so earnest. Especially for The Calvert Journal, Mazo gives an insight into his world and his challenging creative path.

I created It’s Winter with developer and artist Alexander Ignatov. I think it blew up because Alexander and I carry these black holes in our chests. Everyone has these black holes too, but most people can only see their own. If someone else put a hand on your chest, they’d be oblivious to that sadness. But when we made this game, we made our black holes visible and invited people in. They joined us, and realised that our sadness was just like theirs — and so they felt a little less lonely.

It’s Winter is all about isolation, but it’s also a remedy for those feelings, at least to a certain extent. You can crush everything in Call of Duty, but when you switch off the console, the black hole of loneliness will still find you. Bright pictures might help, but only for a little while, until the loneliness comes back. That’s why It’s Winter was so successful: it tells people that they’re not alone, and even if we don’t know how to help right now, at least they’re not the only one.

The truth is, I have no musical talent. When I started to study vocals and solfegio, I kept failing. I dedicated eight hours a day to learning, but still couldn’t figure out the simplest things, even after six months. I was seriously ill and on painkillers, didn’t know how to sustain myself and kept fighting a battle I was meant to lose. But it didn’t put me off: I stopped communicating with people, stuck to a schedule and practiced like mad. It was the position of a doomed man, deciding that things would either be exactly how I wanted them, or that I was going to sit there and die of starvation. Either way, I wasn’t going to change the plan.

It’s Winter was a refuge, those brief minutes when I took a break, when I went to the woods at night, or to the corner shop to buy a Snickers, or to the 24-hour swimming pool. Every day on my way I saw wonders and wrote them down. All I did is document how the world smiled at me, how it shined.

The first thing I wrote was a poem which didn’t make it into the final version of the project.

Poetry is not about text. Poetry is the most concise expression of the deepest thought. Depth which is achieved through speed and density. The video game is also poetry. Poetry can be anything, like photography, or the way that a person cleans toilets or runs their business. I work with text because I find it easy.

I think the new generation is so inspired by mundanity because Russian culture is dying, Russian people are dying. We all know it, deny it, accept it, brush it off — we react differently but deep down, we’re saying goodbye. Older generations used to fight, but we’re bidding farewell. People who are saying goodbye don’t hold grudges, but they do think back to precious moments, like trips to the river as a child. The death of a nation is also the death of memory. Not just your memories of your childhood jaunts, but also your mother’s memories, and your mother’s mother’s, and so on and so forth. We are forgetting ourselves and being reborn. It’s not good or bad, it’s just life — there’s going to be thousands of years of going to the river, but these would be different journeys, different rivers, strange rivers.

As told to and edited by Anastasiia Fedorova.

You can now play It’s Winter and read Ilia Mazo’s poetry in English here